A Night in Frank Duffs

At the top of Main Street, just across from the Town Hall, is one of Bray’s finest pubs, Frank Duff’s. It’s my local, being closest to my house, exactly 1.3 km to be precise. That’s a fifteen minute walk, though longer returning.

The name bears no relation to the Frank Duff who founded the Legion of Mary and championed the destruction of Monto Town, Dublin’s red light district in the 1920s. The reference is to the Frank Duff who set up shop here with wife Sheila in the 1940s. Their son, Ken, inherited the business in the late seventies. When Ken died in 2017, his sister Madeleine, ran the business for four years. Covid effectively shut the pub down. As a food free zone it didn’t qualify for the restricted opening of other premises over the lockdown period. The Duggans, owners of several premises in Bray, including the Harbour Bar and the Martello, took over in 2021. 

During the Duff years the pub ignored such unnecessary distractions as food, piped music and television. It was all for a few drinks and a chat. The ideal local, so. More eccentrically, the pub rejoiced in a cycling theme, from the time the Tour de France came to Bray in 1998.

Shay Elliott was the focus of commemoration for the Wicklow cycling fraternity. Elliott was born and raised in Crumlin, in Dublin 12, and was a cycling pioneer in Ireland. He was the first Irishman to particiate in the Tour, and in 1963 became the first English speaker to wear the Yellow Jersey of race leader, which he held over three stages. He returned to Ireland, and became involved in Bray Wheelers, coaching new talent in the sport. He died in May 1971, from shotgun wounds, and was buried at St Mochonog’s Church, Kilmacanogue, near Bray. A monument to him was erected in Glenmalure, just south of Glendalough. It is a glorious spot to contemplate Wicklow’s mountain scenery.

Refurbished for its reopening, the premises has been divided along traditional bar and lounge lines. Television made its first appearance at Duffs in the old style, dark wood bar, while the lounge kept to the ancient tradition of banning the haunted fishtank. I am more often found in the lounge, to the rear of the premises where there’s a fire and high stools.

That’s the setting for this acrylic. It captures a moment in time, as friends debate the finerpoints of music, art, philosophy and football. A modest amount of drink has been consumed, though more may follow. We sit at the high table, while other clients are arrayed on armchairs and couches, bathing in the glow of warm lamps and an open fire. I am looking towards Main Street, hoping to catch the eye of a friendly staff member, more than likely, and let my comrades solve the problems of the world.

On the Road

You know the first time I traveled
Out in the rain and snow
In the rain and snow
I didn’t have no payroll
Not even no place to go

The Snow Tree

This is the first time I’ve put together an exhibition of my paintings. Although I have been painting and drawing for as long as I can remember, my visual art has been a bit sporadic over the years. Most of my energy has gone into commissioned work or illustrations for specific briefs and events.

Rainy Night in Ripley Hills

Over the last five years I have devoted more time in generating a coherent body of work, painting on canvas. This has culminated in the show, On the Road, currently at the Signal Arts Centre in Bray.

Approaching Fairyhill

There are twenty painting in all, around the loose theme implied by the title. It’s subtitled: a travelogue in pictures. All this means, is that as soon as I step outside my front door, I am on the road. Early paintings in this process were taken from walking home at night and feature streetscapes of Bray and its suburbs.

Driving Through Skye

Farther afield, I have used photographs through the windscreen of our car, driving the highways and byways around Dublin and Wicklow. Then there are the many places I have visited over the years. Vancouver, the snowy mountains of British Columbia, the city of Granada in Spain and the highlands of Scotland are included in my subject matter.

Road to Whistler

There are many ‘nocturnes’, nighttime paintings of cities and motorways. At other times, I am painting into the low winter sun. I like the stark contrasts created, those long, eerie shadows. At other times, it’s the rain, and that great feeling as countryside or town emerges from a heavy shower, the dark veil of cloud pulled aside for the glaring sun.

Crossing Morehampton Road

It’s exciting, isn’t it? Stepping out into the world, never stepping in the same river twice. And so it goes. I keep on painting, looking for new inspiration and challenges. Most of the paintings have appeared in these pages, with prose attached to set them in their context. Here I am reprising them again.

Snowy Night in Granada

The Signal show runs to the end of the month. Thanks to everyone there, they have been wonderful. And thanks for all the comments and encouragement from folks on wordpress and facebook and all my friends here, and far away.

Vancouver at Night

But I ain’t going down
That long old lonesome road
All by myself
If I can’t carry you, baby
Gonna carry somebody else

Canned Heat recorded On the Road Again in 1967, the summer of love (or the autumn thereof).

Wicklow’s Wonderful Playlist

The walk from the Dargle River to Arklow on the Avoca is about 54k, taking in, near enough, the coastline of County Wicklow. After Arklow, there is a short stretch to Clogga Beach after which Kilmichael Point marks the border with Wexford. I haven’t done that yet, but it’s on my list.

All the way to Wicklow Town we kept to the coast, though after that access was restricted to select entry points. It’s been an epic in seventeen parts. The first seven were in Bray which certainly offers plenty, though we had barely covered a mile of our journey before embarking on the cliff walk to Greystones. That’s about a 7k stretch and you’d do it easily in ninety minutes. If you want to do it via Bray Head and Summit, it will take a bit longer with a climb to 240 metres. You can make it a loop walk or go station to station and take DART in one direction. 

Greystones all the way to Wicklow is along the beach for a little over 20k. Detours to Newcastle and the East Coast Bird Sanctuary were taken. The Bird Sanctuary is a good outing of itself. Greystones to Newcastle is around 8k, and it’s another 13k to Wicklow.

Wicklow was good for a bit of exploration. South of the town you can navigate the headland by way of the Black Castle and join the Glen Beach Cliff Walk as far as the Lighthouses. Wicklow to Arklow is a distance of about 25k, but there’s no one coastal path. We drove it and dropped into Magheramore Beach and Brittas Bay, the latter a splendid walk end to end of about 5k. After Mizen Head, the road runs close to the sea for 12k all the way into Arklow.

And of course, what kept us going was the travellers tales, the myths and legends, and the songs playing in our heads. Much of the playlist is provided by local artists, some a bit further afield. 

Double Cross, (Fintan Coughlan), Tired and Emotional/Mary Coughlan (1985)

Telstar, (Joe Meek) The Original Telstar – The Sounds of the Tornados/The Tornados (1962)

The Wanderer, (Ernie Maresca ), Dion (1961)

Mr Tambourine Man, (Bob Dylan), Mr Tambourine Man/The Byrds (1965)

Teenage Kicks, (John O’Neill), Teenage Kicks/The Undertones (1978)

Nothing Compares 2U, (Prince), I do not want what I haven’t got/Sinead O’Connor (1990)

Meetings of the Waters (Fionn Regan), Meetings of the Waters/Fionn Regan (2017)

Sloop John B, (Trad,. Arr. Brian Wilson), Pet Sounds/The Beachboys (1966)

Candle in the Wind, (John/Taupin), Goodbye Yellow Brick Road/Elton John (1973)

Wish You Were Here, (Gilmour/Waters), Wish You were Here/Pink Floyd (1975)

Holy Moses (Slattery/McCabe), The Cujo Family/The Cujo Family (2010)

The Herring (Trad), Drinkin’ and Courtin’/The Dubliners (1968)

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun (Robert Hazzard), She’s So Unusual/Cyndi Lauper (1983)

Zephyr Song (Balzary/Fruscianti/Kiedis/Smith), By the Way/Red Hot Chilli Peppers (2002)

Come Fly With Me (Cahn/Van Heusen), In the Wee Small Hours/Frank Sinatra (1955)

The Parting Glass (Trad), Hozier (2021)

Anchorage (Michelle Shocked), Short, Sharp, Shocked/Michelle Shocked (1988)

Suzanne (Leonard Cohen) Songs of Leonard Cohen/Leonard Cohen (1967)

Follow Me Up to Carlow (P.J. McCall), Planxty/Planxty (1973)

Do It Again (Brian Wilson/Mike Love), The Beachboys (1968)

The Meeting of the Waters (Thomas Moore), John McCormack.

The Streets of Arklow (Van Morrison), Veedon Fleece/Van Morrison (1974)

Drinking at the Harbour Bar

Bejabbers, I’ve had my first vaccine. Suddenly, things are looking up. The world, long empty, is again filling up with possibilities. Restrictions are being eased and in about a month al fresco drinking and dining will return. So, in case any of yiz have forgotten what that’s like, I’ve painted this scene outside the Harbour Bar from about two years back. It is after the Bray Air Show on a blazing summer’s day and tens of thousands of thirsty folk go looking for a pint. And what better place than Bray? 

I am alone in a crowd and it is a very pleasant place to be. I hope I’ve conveyed the feeling of being inside the scene, as distinct from the remote artist observing from the outside. I’m thinking of those great group paintings of Auguste Renoir: the Luncheon of the Boating Party and the Moulin de la Galette. That was late nineteenth century Paris and Renoir and his mates were changing the way we look on life, love and art, and the whole damned thing. But people are the same all over, throughout space and time. After the plague year, the world will open again. I’m celebrating.

Simply, this is what people do and always have. This is what makes life fun. The painting is quite different from the more isolated feel I usually go for, and I’ve needed to adjust my technique to accommodate that. It’s in acrylics, as usual, but has more of a watercolour feel to it. I laid out the composition precisely, but went for a freer brushstroke to capture that atmosphere of movement and joy. I hope this works. Of course, nothing beats the real thing. Bring it on!

Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast – 8

After the joy of the summit, we magic ourselves back to where we began, beside the Scenic Car Park at the junction of the Cliff Walk and the steep path up Bray Head. A good walker can combine both paths in a loop, or take either route between Bray and Greystones. But with time on our side, we have taken both separately.

The cliff walk curves away to the left and from now on is a relatively level, well beaten path all the way to Greystones. It’s just over 6K and takes about an hour and a quarter to walk. It’s a path well travelled and particularly busy on a summer’s weekend. In the morning you’ll have the sun on your side and a glimmering coastal panorama. Shade falls after noon but the views remain captivating. There’s a surprising remoteness for such proximity to town and city, and a welcome seasoning of wild fauna. There are goats on the high headland, seals and sometimes dolphins in the sea, and the air alive with birdlife. Gannets, kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills, shags and cormorants ply their trade along the cliffs. Herring gulls and great black-backed gulls circle ominously, and you might spot such elegant predators as peregrine falcons and kestrels. 

The Cliff Walk originated with the extension of the railway southbound in 1856. The Earl of Meath, whose Kilruddery estate stretched from Giltspur to the sea, did not want the railway line to bisect his demesne, but was willing to donate the land along the foreshore free of charge. The problem was this consisted of sheer cliffs and was going to require major engineering skill to construct a railway along it.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was given the task. Brunel was the star engineer of the time, born in 1806 in Portsmouth, England to a French father and English mother. Having completed his education in France, he returned to England in the late twenties to work with his father Marc on the construction of the Thames Tunnel. His subsequent career showed extraordinary invention and versatility over a wide range of projects. The famous Clifton Suspension Bridge near Bristol was an early triumph of design and aesthetics. Various difficulties prevented it being built during his lifetime, but, though altered in its final details, it is considered a fitting tribute to his genius. He became a central figure in the development of railways in these islands and pioneered modern oceanic travel with the design of large scale, propeller driven, all metal steamships. 

The Great Western, a paddle steamship, made the Atlantic crossing in 1838 in just fifteen days with fuel in reserve. Great Britain, the first truly modern ship, was made of metal rather than wood and driven by propellers instead of paddle. In 1852 he began work on the Great Eastern, the largest ship of its time. 700 foot long and holding four thousand passengers, it carried enough fuel to make the round trip to Australia. Finally launched in 1860, Brunel wouldn’t live to see the day; he died, aged fifty three, in 1859. As often happened with Brunel’s projects, it was not quite the success intended. Brunel was ahead of his time but world trade had not attained the economies of scale required to see his plans blossom. But, while it failed as a passenger liner, the Great Eastern found success as a cable lying ship, laying down the first successful transatlantic telegraph cable in 1866

Brunel first appeared in Ireland and encountered Dargan at the opening of the Dalkey Atmospheric Railway in 1844. Dargan enlisted Brunel as engineer for the development of Bray seafront, with the building of the sea wall and Promenade. He was the obvious candidate for the job of extending the railway line to Greystones, and he surveyed and engineered the route in1855/6. 

The coastal route may seem the most logical route south from Bray, but it brought practical difficulties. Brunel was faced with the prospect of forcing the railway through high coastal cliffs. He opted for timber trestle built viaducts where possible. The original line had only two tunnels but since completion there have been four realignments. Erosion and rockfalls saw the route moved closer to the cliffs and the modern line passes through four tunnels, the longest and most recent built in 1917, almost a kilometre long. Such changes and high maintenance costs lead some to call the development Brunel’s Folly. But given the lucrative passenger trade, especially since electrification, this seems a misnomer. Whatever the cost, the benefit of this glorious route in terms of both engineering and aesthetics is well worth it.

The ten minute spin is the most spectacular of Ireland’s railway journeys. The hour long trip from central Dublin is a joy: exiting via the starred coast of the teeming city, past Dun Laoghaire, Ireland’s first train route, and then bursting upon the glorious scenery of Killiney Bay. Bray follows, and then to cap it all there’s this thrilling ten minute leg to Greystones. The route features on series three of Michael Portillo’s tv series of great railway journeys. These days the rail is electrified and trains travel every half hour. 

Bray Station has a mural of Brunel. He cuts a distinctive dash with his high beaver hat and bristling sideburns. He is said to have always carried a leather pocket case lined with fifty cigars. Now there’s a man who liked to plan ahead. Nothing more frustrating than finding yourself halfway along a railway line in exotic terrain and running out of your preferred cheroot. I reckon fifty should do between Bray and Greystones, maybe both ways if you fancy cutting down.

After construction, the walk was opened to the public, but with conditions. Lord Meath built a lodge to levy a toll of one penny, every day except Friday, when the Lord had it to himself. Lord Meath’s Lodge today lies in ruins, almost a scenic embellishment in itself. There’s a set of steps leading up the cliff just past the southern standing gable. This was for Lord Meath’s own guests, leading up to a scenic headland route, today overgrown. The view from the top of the steps is magnificent. I seem to remember that the lodge was converted for use as a tea rooms in the fifties and sixties, at the time of a major tourism upsurge. Such enterprise died off in the depressed seventies and eighties. It might fly again though. I’ve seen it work on many continental cliff paths. 

After a short uphill section, we come to a deep slice in the headland: the Brandy Hole . There’s a spectacular view into the ravine, illustrating the wonders of building a railway in such a hostile environment. You can still see where the old route lay seaward of the modern tunnels. This was the scene of a serious accident a decade after the line was opened. A northbound train derailed at Brabazon Corner on an August morning in 1867 and plunged off the trestle viaduct to fall ten metres into the landward side of the ravine. Two were killed and dozens injured. An investigation found no fault with the structure itself, though the railway was realigned. Ten years later the viaduct was removed and the route pushed further inland. 

The Brandy Hole was a smugglers’s cove up to the mid nineteenth century. It was used to smuggle brandy, wine and silk from France. The cut of the ravine kept activities out of sight of the coastguard in Bray and Greystones. There was entry to a vast cave at sea level and, it is said, a tunnel connecting to the landward side of Bray Head. Such traces were obliterated with the construction of the railway.

This aspect of the cliffs, to be hidden in plain view, lends an aura of mystique. The shimmering shifts of the atmosphere, birds and clouds and sparkling sea, can make the wayfarer feel unmoored in time. You expect to turn and see the promenaders of Bray in Victorian attire, twirling parasols or moustachios, politely perplexed at your modernity. Or rounding a sudden bend, a ruffian might lounge with dubious beard and earring. Tipping their tricorn hat for a lucifer, in that pleasant sulphurous flare you’ll catch a glimpse in their one green eye of the hidden cave and its glittering treasure.

I fled to the island where the animals roam

found a darkened cave and called it my home

at night I could hear the birds and insects

and lay my body down on a bed of regrets

Holy Moses, the devil’s after me

between the sea and the sky chasing me down

Holy Moses by the  Cujo Family, from their eponymous debut album of 2010.

Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast -6

The Boathouse marks the southern end of the Esplanade; now a cafe where you can sip your coffee with close up views of Bray Head. The Promenade extends three hundred metres farther to the foot of the Head. This cul de sac was home to Dawson’s Amusements and other arcades. Dawson’s arrived as a travelling show in the 1920s. They launched Bray’s first amusement arcade in 1941 from a rickety timber pavilion. As the amusement scene caught on, this developed into a swish art deco concrete building in the fifties. In the eighties, a huge aircraft hanger type structure took its place. Towards the end of the century the amusement business waned and Dawsons departed leaving a sizeable crater now used as a car park. Star Amusements next door remains. 

Seafront paraphernalia abounds in a huddle of small premises. There’s ice creams, candyfloss and a few good chippers, including Cassoni’s, my favourite, established here in 1949. The family had left their Italian homeland in 1910, bound for America. Ireland intervened, and they opened business in Derry, moving to Athlone, Dublin’s Thomas Street and finally Bray. One of my first painting commissions was from Victor who ran the seafront premises. Victor, keen soccer fan, wanted an action portrait of the two star players of his motherlands, Ireland and Italy: George Best and Roberto Baggio. Liam Brady could have been a candidate, but Best was a sexier prospect, being fifth Beatle and all that. Baggio was at his peak then, playing in three world cups in the nineties, scoring in every one, nine goals in all. 

Past the amusements, a large white building nestles into the headland. The Bray Head Hotel dates to 1862 but has been in decay for many years. Weirdly, it tends to be used by the film business and frequently features as a seafront hotel in Irish movies. Many viewers must regard it as the place to stay. But for decades its hotel operations have been very discreet. Hotel and bar continued to operate, but within a time warp that seemed indifferent to the outside world. 

Seven years ago, RTE sent writer Deirdre Purcell to stay for a month and write a tv play inspired by the experience. She had never written drama before, but the noirish decadence of the Bray location resulted in Shine On. Yet the light continues to dim.

The hotel was one of a chain owned by the Regan family. This haunted heritage is part of the baggage of modern troubadour Fionn Regan. He has been compared to Bob Dylan and Nick Drake, with a touch of the Mike Scott too, methinks. Such labels are only useful as introductions. Regan’s vision is unique, and very much born of the environment where he was formed. All the quirks of a Fawlty Towers hotel, the relentless pursuit of fun in a seaside town, and the wonderful contrast of natures vulcanism and urban verve.

‘I have become an aerial view of a coastal town you once knew,’ he sings on his debut album the End of History, in 2006. He recently released his fifth album, Meetings of the Waters. It’s not that Meeting of the Waters, which we’ll come to later, I promise. Moore has permanent rights to the No 10 jersey, as it were, but Regan’s a worthy folky successor.

The meetings of the waters

Just below the ribs

To the higher reach

From the roots of love

The road becomes a path and reaching the end of the seashore veers left to launch us onto Bray Head. This is where the road really rises. The Irish for bon voyage, ‘go n-eiri an bothar leat,’ translates directly to ‘may the road rise with you.’ The only person ever to get this right was John Lydon in the Public Image song Rise. Released as a single in 1986, Rise is an anti apartheid song, the good wishes of the refrain intended for Nelson Mandela. The phrase is usually. mistranslated as ‘may the road rise up to meet you,’ or ‘may the road rise up before you,’ neither of which are particularly promising. Falling face first onto the road is an approximation of these manglings. In Irish, rise denotes success, in this context a pleasant and agreeable journey. Walking up Bray Head or along the Cliff Walk should achieve such good wishes.

But first, downhill to the left, a narrow path leads to Naylor’s Cove. Tucked into the first stack of cliffs, this was established as a bathing area by local fisherman Bart Naylor in the 1890s. Naylor later joined the British Army and lost his life in the Great War in 1917. In the 1930s the local council developed the natural amenity as a designated bathing area with the installation of three swimming pools, diving boards and changing chalets for ladies and gentlemen.

For four decades this was the focal point for swimmers, divers and fun seekers. You can still sense the echoes of the screams and the laughter, a vast and hectic tableau of fightin’ and courtin’, acted out to a soundtrack of some good old rock and roll. Times and fashions change, and the area fell into disuse in the seventies. An air of dereliction prevailed for some time and following failed attempts to renew the structure, ten years ago the concrete ruins were largely removed. It lies unsatisfactorily between natural amenity and a shadow of what it once was. Still, you can sit here and listen out for the ghosts singing.

Back on the main path, we cross the railway track as it burrows along the cliff heading south. Steps to the right lead up to the Scenic Car Park, a free carpark with panoramic views. An uphill track to the southwest leads towards Bray’s oldest building, Raheen a Cluig. Raheen a Cluig, translates as little fort of the bell. Rath refers to the typical Celtic dwelling of pre Christian times, Raithin being the diminutive. Raths were often mythologised as Fairy forts. Here, a small dwelling with a bell accurately describes a Celtic church anyhow. 

Land was given by the Archibolds, powerful lords of the rocky shore after the Norman Conquest. It was run by the Augustinians, inspired by St Augustine of Hippo in North Africa. Augustine taught that nothing conquers except truth, and the victory of truth is love. Love and the pursuit of knowledge was the doctrine of the monks who followed his lead. They had evolved into an organised order of hermetic friars by the thirteenth century. Music was another vital component following the adage that whoever sings prays twice. 

The church was dedicated to either St Michael or Saint Brendan the Navigator. The latter seems appropriate for the setting. Brendan is most associated with his 6th century church at the foot of Mount Brandon on the Dingle Peninsula. From there he is said to have set sail on a seven year journey to find the promised land. Some say he discovered America five centuries before the Vikings. The fantastical descriptions could well describe the ice and fire of Iceland, which was first discovered by Irish monks. Adventurer Tim Severin established the possibility of Brendan reaching America in sixth century craft. Severin’s intrepid voyage was the subject of Shaun Davy’s orchestral suite, The Brendan Voyage, in 1980. You might spot Davy’s house from here, off to the west towards Rocky Valley.

The dissolution of the monasteries unhoused the Augustinians and the church fell into disuse. It became a hideout for smugglers and an inspiration for ghostly tales. A small enclosure nearby was a graveyard for suicides, shipwrecked sailors, strangers, unrepentant murderers, and unbaptised babies. 

A flat area in front of the ruin provides a perfect viewing spot. Bray is laid out below. You can pick out such landmarks as the Neo Romanesque tower of the Holy Redeemer Church on Main Street. Dargan’s new town makes a geometric pattern from the harbour to the head. The sounds and aromas of the seafront are carried on the breeze. Chips and salt sea air, suntan oil and fairground music. Sometimes it’s the hush of the wind rustling heather and pines. Close your eyes and hear the ghosts of times past, caught in endless bonhomie at some Last Chance Saloon, or tan and wet down at Naylor’s Cove. Search for the song they might be singing, flicking through the menu of the Wurlitzer in some chrome and formica palace.

So hoist up the John B’s sail

See how the main sail sets

Call for the Captain ashore

Let me go home, let me go home

I want to go home, let me go home

I feel so broke up I want to go home

Sloop John B dates back to 1916, originating in the Bahamas. The Beachboys were influenced by the Kingston Trio version of the late fifties. It’s on the Beachboys album, Pet Sounds, 1966.

Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast -5

Swingboats are a metaphor for love. You are both in the same boat, swinging together, held close and apart by centrifugal force, sawing between ecstasy and nausea, seeing nothing but your love and a swirling sky. Shortly after moving to Bray, M decided to test this particular equation with a full on swingboat ride. When my head stopped spinning, a half hour or so after touchdown, I realised I had enjoyed it. This proved useful in rearing our children. Children, I soon discovered, like nothing better than being propelled through space at dizzying speeds with clashing trajectories. Helter skelter, ferris wheel, and dodgems, and several infernal modern devices, are magnetic attractions. There is no opting out. The only way to keep nausea at bay is to scream or, and certainly if you’re a man, shout. 

Where better to try it out. Bray was granted its license for market and annual fair by King John in 1213. At the southern extreme of the Pale, it was defended by a couple of castles from the Wilde Irishe, the O’Byrnes and O’Tooles, who had been banished to the mountains. I somehow imagine them in checked shirts, ragged beards and jugs of hooch, with names like Zeke and Zeb, but that might be a later incarnation of the hillbilly tribes overlooking Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast.

By the early nineteenth century Bray had developed from a small manor town into a sizeable industrial town with milling, brewing, distilling and lucrative inland fisheries. The first seeds of the seaside resort were sown in the Romantic era, as poets, painters, writers and philosophers extolled the virtues of the sea air and the spectacle of mountain scenery. Bray is rich in both.

Dargan, having brought the railroad, established the seafront in its current form. The middle classes could make Bray their home and it became the fashionable resort in Victorian times, dubbed the Brighton of Ireland. After the war torn years of the early twentieth century, Bray went more downmarket. But the funfair still buzzed and the masses thrilled to dancehall sweethearts and rock n roll stars, dancing and romancing until the lights finally dimmed. Then, in the eighties, a new wave of migration from Dublin was greased by the coming of electric rail. Where would we be without DART? 

Brays promenade is populated as much by locals as daytrippers and tourists. Bars and eateries with large sea facing terraces abound. Opposite the bandstand, a trio of long established premises are prominent. The Martello is a hotel and venue, home to Bray Arts soirees and music gigs. The original Porterhouse, with branches in Dublin, London and New York was next door, but in recent years changed ownership to become the Anchor. Jim Doyle’s is a renowned rugger pub. with goalposts at the gate and an elegant Jacobean facade. All serve food and segue into the wee small hours as night clubs.

The legacy of grander times endures. Victorian terraces line the seafront, top o the range residential and summer homes for the great and the good migrating from Dublin. Joseph Sheridan le Fanu stayed in the 1860s in a house with the Yeatsian name Innisfree. Lennox Robinson, dramatist, also lived here for a time. Robinson was manager of the Abbey Theatre for almost fifty years until his death in 1958. As Organising Librarian for the Carnegie Trust he was instrumental in founding Ireland’s public library service. Bray’s Carnegie Library, towards the old town, is part of that legacy.

Le Fanu grew up in Chapelizod, west of Dublin’s Phoenix Park, where his father was Church of Ireland rector. The House by the Churchyard is drawn from that environment. Written in the 1860s but set a century earlier, it is full of Le Fanu’s characteristic gloom with a plot that blends mystery and history. Le Fanu was later persuaded to set his stories in a more lucrative and British environment which he did with Uncle Silas. Using an earlier Irish based story Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess as template, it became his best known work. Le Fanu fell ill on completing the novel and came to Bray to recuperate. The bracing sea air was thought to be a boon. Le Fanu’s literary mind stayed focussed on darker things. His final collection, In a Glass Darkly, was published in 1872, a year before his death. It includes the novella, Carmilla. Carmilla, like Uncle Silas, has a first person female teenager narrator. She falls under the seductive spell of the eponymous Lesbian vampire. Both concept and execution made for a provocative mix in those days. The story influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and anticipated the more erotic modern depictions of Vampirism. It was said he died of fright, implying that he was a man with a window to the supernatural. In fact, Le Fanu’s narratives were carefully ambivalent about the supernatural, maintaining the possibility of rational explanation. But they would make your hair stand up in fright.

Chanteuse Sinead O’Connor lives nearby. O’Connor was an early protege of U2’s Mother Records, making waves with her first album The Lion and the Cobra. Her version of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2U was a breakthrough hit for her in 1990.

I go out every night and sleep all day

since you took your love away

it’s been so lonely without you here

like a bird without a song

Never without a song, she has courted success, adulation and controversy ever since. A man I met in a bar told me his curiosity was piqued by a note pinned to her porch window. He snook up the drive to read it, squinting to decipher the small writing which demanded: Please do not peer into this window!

Farther on, the architecture blossoms into the extravaganza of the Esplanade Hotel. Built in the late nineteenth century, it is a three story red brick crowned by three conical turrets giving it the profile of an exotic chateau. Next door, the Strand Hotel, originally Elsinore, was owned by Oscar Wilde’s parents, Sir William, the renowned surgeon and Lady Jane. Jane, wrote under the pen name Speranza, and was a poet, folklorist and passionate advocate for Irish revolution and women’s rights. In the 1860s William was accused of molesting a female patient and Jane, leaping to his defence, became embroiled in a court case which she lost, incurring expenses but, tellingly, damages of only a farthing. When William died bankrupt Jane lived out the remainder of her life in poverty. She was buried in an unmarked grave in London

Oscar’s trials began with his inheritance of the property. Problems with the sale in 1878 resulted in a legal suit which was sorted in his favour, but he was stuck with costs. His more famous trial in the 90s saw him imprisoned for two years for gross indecency with other men. In literary terms it yielded the Ballad of Reading Gaol, which may have been influenced by his mother’s writing. She died while he was in prison.

I never saw a man who looked

With such a wistful eye

Upon that little tent of blue

Which prisoners call the sky,

And at every drifting cloud that went

With sails of silver by.

The Strand Hotel for a long time hosted Abraxas writers group, where I honed my skills alongside bridge clubs, poetry slams and Lions gigs, aye, with football on the telly and many’s the pint of beer. The Strand itself suffered unhappy demise some years back. Under new management, it is now known as Wilde’s.

The Snow Tree

In the recent snow, myself and M took a walk through Kilruddery on the Southern outskirts of Bray. The estate is a working farm, with sheep, pigs, cattle and more besides. It’s a popular location for film shoots, with Ardmore studios nearby. Hell and Back is located here, an annual obstacle course event for the fitness fanatic, or for fools and mad. 

Kilruddery, from the Gaelic, means the church of the knight. The knight was Walter De Riddelsford. In 1171 he was granted the lands hereabout by Strongbow, in thanks for killing John the Mad. The Brabazon family gained the estate in the reign of Henry VIII, and the title Earl of Meath was granted in 1623. Formal seventeenth century gardens surround the house, a damaged but grand gothic fantasy in its most recent incarnation. Beyond the garden walls, paths wind up to higher ground. Up in the hills, our hold on reality slackens further. A Brigadoon of sorts emerges, with wilderness, woodland and forest picturesquely arranged, fields loosely patchworked, unpaved paths, rugged outcrops of rocks suggesting a hinterland of wilder flora and fauna, perhaps bandits and other colourful originals. 

The spell is seasoned by the intrusions of commercial farming, the glimmer of the city on the horizon, and Bray hugging the nearby coast. Paraphernalia from Hell and Back intrudes, technological towers poke through trees, there’s a war games enclosure. Times, you enter a clearing where Vikings or Merry Men are taking a smoke break. Once, I paused with M on the outskirts of a post-apocalyptic village as the fury of tribal weapons erupted some centuries from now. The assistant director was filling us in on the shenanigans. He was unusually solicitous. Turned out he thought we were Lord and Lady Meath. Oh I should have prolonged the ruse, but it was hard not to laugh. I know the quality dress down when out and about, but not in a Dublin 12 accent. Still I felt raised up somehow. Exalted.

At other times, the ambience is Hardyesque. The modern world folds into the haze and you are lost in time. This acrylic painting is the biggest I’ve ever attempted. A metre tall, its size helps to capture the grandeur of the scene. I hope. Ahead, a magnificent tree spreads its arms to catch the noonday sun. We have stopped between showers of snow, the morning fall barely covering the greenery. The rugged Giltspur, or Little Sugarloaf, rises to our right. Off to the left the ground falls into woodland with the clenched fist of Bray Head off frame. Dublin is behind us on the north horizon. Far ahead, a loan figure gains the southern horizon and gazes over sea and mountain. He is an echo, perhaps, of Caspar David Friedrich’s The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. Or my own silhouette, waiting for me to catch up.

Climbing up on Solsbury Hill

I could see the city light

Wind was blowing, time stood still

Eagle flew out of the night

Solsbury Hill was written by Peter Gabriel when he left Genesis in 1977. Solsbury Hill’s in Somerset, England, but any hill will do. Anywhere. To me, the song conjures up that feeling of ecstasy, peculiar to finding yourself face to face within the most sublime scenery. You move from the humdrum to stand within the perfect moment, and everything becomes possible. And all on a day’s walk.

I was feeling part of the scenery

I walked right out of the machinery

My heart going boom boom boom!

Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast – 4

Bray Railway Station is the point of arrival for most visitors. It was renamed Bray Daly in 1966 for Ned Daly from Limerick, commander of the 1st battalion in 1916, and sentenced to death. He was the youngest to be executed at the age of twenty five. The War of Independence features in the station’s murals. One panel proved controversial. Originally the panel showing withdrawing British soldiers had the Union Jack being trailed along the ground. This was replaced with one where a soldier leads a wounded bulldog onto the train.

There’s a direct route from the East platform to the seafront. The main entrance, facing west, leads to the old town, a half mile’s distance via tree lined avenues of Quinsboro and Florence Roads. Heading left, we keep to our route along Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast, returning to the seafront by way of Albert Walk.

There’s a small clock tower and barometer to the right of the entrance. Henry and Rose has occupied the corner for as long as I can recall. This is the go-to place for fish and chips. A must for any day, or night, by the seaside.

Albert Walk honours either Queen Victoria’s husband, or more likely, their son, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales and later Edward VII who has a number of roads and terraces in Bray named for him. It’s a distinctive facet of Bray and Dun Laoghaire where the nineteenth century naming survives, retaining a patina of British Imperialism despite the return of the native. The Wilde Irishe abide, of course, like the flora and fauna, forever pushing through. Interestingly, along the left hand side, beneath the wall from the Stationmaster’s House, a sloped verge has been colonised by Edible Bray for the growing of herbs. A garden in the city. The buildings house an eclectic mix of shops and cafes. The lane is sometimes jokingly referred to as Bray-jing, because of its concentration of Chinese business, at times acting as base camp for the Chinese New Year parade. The ethnic mix includes Italian and Polish, but all are welcome. Albert Walk and environs may fancifully be imagined as the tiniest miniature of the Big Apple, where Little Italy and Chinatown meet across a network of local legend.

The Cafe Letterario, or the Black Cat, is a miniature Italian osteria, with excellent barista coffee, Italian specialities and wine. There are literary evenings, crowds wedged into what little space there is to listen as the bold launch into poem, song or story. Staff and paraphernalia exude a homely, though sophisticated Italian character. I like to sit in the window, or of a fine day on the outdoor bench. A mural gazes down, speaking of love. Above, one imagines washing lines painted to infinity against a mediterranean sky while Vesuvius rumbles ominously in the mid-distance.

Farther along, Pizzas. and Cream were a fixture on the Walk for thirty years or so. When I set up as a designer and illustrator here in the early eighties they were an early client. My menu illustration became an evergreen. It’s a fanciful evocation of Tuscany, or whatever Italian region happens to be in your thoughts. Design is to trigger desire in the mind of the beholder, and this seemed to work. Pizzas were good, of course, and there was a pleasant patio and garden to the rere to con you further into Mediterranean immersion.

Old favourites may go, but new flavours will take their place. There’s a rich mix of contemporary flux and ancient history in Albert Walk. An Italian name adorns another cafe, but the accents are Eastern European. The hulk of a forgotten cinema nurtures a neon casino and there’s an Asian Supermarket. 

My first published short story, Coda, was set around here. I imagined a late night thoroughfare to the dancehalls and clubs that abounded back in the heyday. And I seasoned it with some murder and rock and roll. The story won a competition in the Bray People, adjudicated by Arthur Flynn, local author and chairman of Irish PEN. Arthur, who has written some fine histories of Bray, thought that the author, myself, must have been a local rather than a blow-in. But then, as a fiction writer, I’m good at making things up. Coda, rather weirdly, is the first story in my debut collection, Blues Before Dawn, published in 1992 by Poolbeg.

Exiting the lane, we take a sharp left and head for the seafront under the railway bridge. The Signal Art gallery is tucked into the railway line. Founded as a working gallery and studios in 1990, Signal was an important step in developing Bray’s art movement. Locals and blow-ins were equally nurtured. Art openings spilled onto the pavements to mingle with daytrippers and nightclubbers. That’s entertainment.

At the corner, we’re back on the seafront. The Sealife centre is the largest building on the Esplanade itself. Established in 1998 it quickly became Bray’s top visitor attraction. Within its ingenious environment a mix of exotic and local sealife circulates. Visitors mingle in inner space with sharks, stingrays, piranhas and the occasional octopus. Admission tickets give all day access, a typical visit taking about ninety minutes.

Asides from the main attraction, there’s a ground floor cafe. Butler and Barry’s Gastro Pub takes up the top floor. Excellent for a late evening meal, when the theatrical effect of the interior is at its peak, with the glass wall filled with rolling blue sea to the Eastern horizon.

The Carnival occupies much of the northern esplanade in season, and spills farther south during festival. The Bandstand dates from Victorian times, but the focus of crowds on music remains, if the music itself has changed. Resorts like Bray used to conjure up marching bands, all brass and blazers, an audience lounging in deck chairs. That very English oompa oompa had by the sixties merged with the more surreal visions of the Beatles circa Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. The young and the old mix. They always do. Showtime in August sees big attractions on the Bandstand, culminating in the frenzy of fireworks night. The Annual airshow is also a major focus, packing a hundred thousand onto the seafront and the Head.

Amongst those threading the boards there have been ubiquitous tribute bands with a sprinkling of originals. I’ve seen the Undertones, Mary Black and local heroes the Cujo Family. It ain’t always rock and roll, but somebody’s going to like it.There’s always a soundtrack and all the fun of the fair.

Are teenage dreams so hard to beat?

Everytime she walks down the street

Another girl in the neighbourhood

Wish she was mine, she looks so good

Teenage Kicks was the first single of Derry punk rockers The Undertones, released in 1978. It must have been thirty years later when I saw them perform it in Bray. I know, you’re only young once, but sometimes it’s good to remember.

I’m gonna call her on the telephone

Have her over ’cause I’m all alone

I need excitement oh I need it bad

And it’s the best, I’ve ever had

I wanna hold her wanna hold her tight

Get teenage kicks right through the night

Wicklow’s Wonderful Coast – 2

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold, 

And many goodly states and kingdoms seen; 

Round many western islands have I been 

Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold. 

Bray Promenade looking south is Bray’s iconic vista. The waves fall to the stony beach on our left, the green Esplanade is arranged to our right, while the clenched fist of Bray Head rises up before us. Postcards, photos, paintings all convey the same scene, at different points in history. Ladies and Gentlemen in Victorian splendour, the last days of sepia elegance in Edwardian times, more downmarket family fun post Independence, and the technicolour imagery of John Hinde postcards in the fifties and sixties. Still the parade goes on, everchanging, still the same. 

Off to the east, the blue horizon is constant, but even there chimeras lurk. Sometimes Wales leers up from the horizon, its diaphonous mountains and cliffs disrupting the pale blue emptiness. Then it shimmers into nothingness again. This is a rare sight, such that when it does appear it might be considered a mirage, just another trick of the light, and of Bray.

To the landward side, the curved, art deco facade on the corner wraps the vestigial remains of the Royal Marine Hotel. Bray’s first seafront hotel was built in 1855, the year after the railway arrived in its backyard. Sixty years later, as war raged in Europe and revolution simmered in Ireland, the upper floors were destroyed by fire. The site lay derelict for twenty years, when in 1936 the ground floor was recast as the Railway Buffet, with the current facade. This later became the Dug Inn, operated by the Duggan family, who now run several seafront establishments, including the Harbour. They have expanded these premises into The Ocean Bar and Grill, including Platform Pizza and the BoxBurger. To confuse matters, locals often refer to the spot as Katie’s, from the pub’s previous name Katie Gallagher’s. This itself derives from the name of a low rugged peak visible to the northwest, part of the Dublin Mountains in the vicinity of the Scalp.

The level crossing leads up towards the old town a half mile beyond. Some years back on rounding the corner, I ran into a nuclear family of African origin heading seawards, luggage in tow. The young boy was maybe seven or eight. His eyes opened wide with delight as he looked past me to the view. “Oh, look at the big, green, mountain!”

Though I well knew what was there, I had to turn and look. Yes, the Head, rising sheer from the sea, is nothing if not a big green mountain. Well, technically, at just under nine hundred feet, it is a hill, but greatly magnified in its drama. I saw it again with this child’s eyes, as when first  standing at that age before the big green mountain. 

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies 

When a new planet swims into his ken; 

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes 

He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men 

Look’d at each other with a wild surmise— 

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer by John Keats

Beneath the big green mountain, there were other wonders to behold: the amusement arcades and the seafront carnival with their dodgems and swingboats, calliopes and candyfloss. In any age, there is something in the seafront resort that reeks of rock and roll and all those seductive scents of fun, food, sex and machinery. All the crazy things to grab a youngster and carry them along like an amusement ride. In the sixties it was Beatlemania, mods and rockers, dancehall days, and holidays in Bray.

I holidayed here with my parents and siblings in 1963, stayed in a BnB by the Carlisle Grounds. I was seven years old. Uptown, the Italian cafe, Mizzoni’s on Quinsboro Road, had a Scopitone, a jukebox with a 16mm film insert. How modern can you get? As kids we were thrilled, though the choice was limited. My big song just then was I Like It by Gerry and the Pacemakers but that wasn’t an option. Telstar by the Tornados was the best bet. The Tornados were Billy Fury’s backing band. But it was they who were the first of the English invasion to hit number one in the US. Telstar might be said to have spawned the sci-fi sound, with such later echoes as the Doctor Who Theme and David Bowie’s Space Oddity.

Telstar itself, was the name of a series of satellites launched from Cape Canaveral in 1962. They were the result of a multi-national project between Europe and North America with the aim of developing transatlantic tv and telephone communications. The world of instant global communication was realised. It’s something we take for granted today but was a wonder sixty years ago.